With the success of The Avengers, media consumers like myself can’t help but look to the future and think, “What next?” Well, what’s next is Iron Man 3. But now I’m wondering, what does the comic book industry have anything to do with Asian Americans?
Unfortunately, it has everything to do with Asian Americans.
The Walt Disney Company announced that Iron Man 3 will be co-produced with a Chinese partner, DMG Entertainment. While this means Iron Man 3 will open overseas first rather than in the States, it may also mean a rehashing of the normal Iron Man plot.
In the last two movies, Iron Man fought two robotic villians: Obadiah Stane and Whiplash. As far as the threequels go, having another robotic villain would be stale and boring.
What are Marvel’s choices?
So Marvel has MODOK and AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics). Unfortunately, an oversized floating head is comical on TV rather than sinister. Not only that, but the AIM’s suits look like beekeeper suits. MODOK is definitely out, and probably more suited to an Avengers enemy, rather than merely Iron Man’s.
They have Ezekial Stane, son of Obadiah Stane. Created by Matt Fraction in 2008, Ezekial Stane is a relatively new edition to the Marvel Universe. He creates a biosuit, connected to his body, and destroys Stark Industries. Ezekial’s involvement probably would wreck the self-contained aspect of the Marvel movies, so he is probably out.
The other options that Marvel have are options like the Unicorn, a man with a cone-shaped blaster on his head; Ultron, a robot created by Hank Pym (out because of Hank Pym’s absence in the Avengers team); Titanium Man (another robot); Melter, a man who can melt iron; and perhaps, but highly unlikely, Whitney Frost/Madame Frost, Tony Stark’s sometimes-enemy, sometimes-lover. However, in the interest of maintaining a semblance of realism and credibility, all of these villains are out. Whitney Frost would disrupt the already delicate balance of Pepper and Tony, so she is also out.
Now, who else does that leave?
First appearing in Tales of Suspense #50, the Mandarin’s first incarnation is a wealthy Chinese businessman born in mainland China before the Communist revolution. At adulthood, he discovers the wondrous powers of Makluan (alien) science and then is suddenly bent on world domination. He attempts to steal missiles from the American government that were built by Tony Stark, who then takes it upon himself to defeat the Mandarin. Unable to bring him to justice, they start the long rivalry that has made the Mandarin one of Iron Man’s greatest villains.
In his current incarnation, the Mandarin is the son of a (White) prostitute in an opium den with a nameless father. He works up in the opium/prostitute house as he grows up, and then, after finding his mother’s overdosed body, he becomes the new pimp of the brothel house. Then he’s a loyalist to the Communist government, and not to mention a woman-oppressing man. All of these unseemly traits he hides with his powers of manipulation and the Makluan rings.
In short, the Mandarin is Fu Manchu 2.0. For those who have never seen Fu Manchu, have a taste:
He’s an Asian American steretoype, created under the fear of the yellow peril. The Mandarin could be considered a spin-off of Fu Manchu with his nasty attitude and his “take -over-the-world” modus operandi.
Unfortunately, this means that Asian people will once again be cast in two dual roles: one, the male oppressor, and two, the effeminate helpless subjects. The Mandarin will have to be defeated by the white savior, Tony Stark, to be freed. And once again, the leading role of the Asian character will be as a villain. Not only that, but his powers are given to him by an “alien” race, thus placing him in the perpetual foreigner stereotype.
The story gets worse, however. The Mandarin is Tony’s recurring villain, considered Tony’s greatest threat. But Tony wins every time. Every time the Mandarin tries to win, he loses. In other words, if the Mandarin stands for foreign power and Tony for the brute force of the United States, the message is loud and clear: Tony Stark, messenger for the United States, wins every time.
That is not to say that Tony Stark cannot be a good or even compelling character. He has a wealth of mental health issues that have been treated with care and nuance. But Tony Stark is still a White character, and all of his movies thus far have played off the stereotypes of other racial groups. This wouldn’t nearly be as big of a problem, however, if there were some good Asian characters, or even other characters of color, to balance out the mix–but unfortunately not.
In the Marvel franchise thus far, we have two ethnic characters–Black Widow, who is for all intents and purposes, another White character–and James “Rhodey” Rhodes–a Black character who is Tony’s sidekick and not even part of the main Avengers roster. There are no Asian Americans in the Avengers team, and even more problematic, no people of color in the Avengers movie roster at all, and only one woman. Adding an Asian villain would only continue the poor representation of people of color in the superhero business–a franchise that supposedly represents “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” but features a single demographic and a token Black character.
Iron Man 3 could change that disturbing trend. Tony Stark has worked with countless people of color in his career, owing to the fact that an international business would involve Tony speaking to all sorts of people, including his long-term girlfriend Rumiko Fujikawa or even Amaedus Cho, Korean kid genius with a coyote pup-in-tow.
But the announcement of DMG Entertainment’s involvement, along with Disney’s promise to add Asian elements to Iron Man 3 do not bode well for Asian Americans. The Avengers taught viewers that the only type of hero is the American hero–but if the Mandarin appears in Iron Man 3, the movie might teach us that the best type of villain, too, is the Asian one.